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What Divides Turkey And The EU Goes Deeper Than Politics

Sunset over Istanbul
Sunset over Istanbul
Nuray Mert


ISTANBUL — Over the years, as Turkey's European Union membership process stalled, I have seen plenty of blame on both sides. Ultimately, I never believed Turkey would become a full EU member, as the process was full of insincerity from both Ankara and Brussels. Now, it is over.

In all these years, I never criticized the EU membership process out of some nationalistic impulse. But I do believe that the goals of democracy, rights and freedom cannot be achieved by way of foreign pressure.

I also believe that the EU is not merely a union of political principles, and requires a minimum level of cultural proximity. I still believe this is true. I am not among the Turks who believe that somehow "democracy is alien to our culture." What I mean by cultural proximity is based around the way our daily lives are lived. France may be the most secular example of the West, just as Turkey is of the East — but one has Christmas and Easter and the other has Ramadan and Eid as official national holidays.

We never had time to discuss these things thoroughly. We could not, because the pro-EU camp in Turkey was labeling anybody with the slightest objection as an "ultra-nationalist," while the Islamist camp was clinging tight to the EU as a way to eliminate the hold of ultra-secular Kemalism.

Now, the issue is seen through new lenses. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had managed to eliminate Kemalism and the hold of Turkey's Ataturk foundation, so it no longer needs the backing of the EU. At the same time, Europe viewing Turkey as an "Islamic Democracy" is over, while our Islamists fell out of love with the EU.

We should also note that the same Islamists fell out of love with values such as democracy, human rights and freedoms as well. Since "freedom to wear a headscarf" and "human rights to practice one's religion" were now guaranteed by their government — providing similar rights to the rest of the people did not fit to their plans.

Ties that bind

Recently, the EU has suddenly stopped ignoring the threat of authoritarianism in Turkey. But in the end, the discussion of who is right is overshadowed by the bald insincerity of each side. This doesn't, of course, mean that we shouldn't be asking what will come of the relationship between Turkey and Europe. Even if Ankara never becomes a full member of the EU, it has serious political and economic ties with the continent. Cutting these ties would be the wrong path to take. And this goes beyond diplomacy or even foreign business opportunities: in the end, it is about what kind of leadership Turkey will have at home as well.

We see the attitude of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling establishment towards the West and the EU. They do not consider the values of democracy and freedoms as universal but rather cultural. And, it may be, that the cultural values of the West don't fit with ours. This means we will eat our yogurt in our own way, as the Turkish saying goes. At the root of democracy is the goal of encouraging different groups to peacefully coexist and securing the rights of individuals.

Is the real reason for the current standoff with the EU their approach to the Kurdish issue, their support of "terrorism"? Who would have intervened on this issue if we could have handled it on our own? We saw this problem with the secularist regime of the past, as we see it with Islamists today.

Both secular nationalists and political Islamists camps have always kept their distance from true democratic politics and the values on which it is built. The diffidence to these values clashes with their own respective claims to legitimacy via the "voting ballot" and "national will." Why are these concepts not "alien" or somehow "Western values' and the others are not? They have no good response because the starting point is always a yearning to run an authoritarian regime. Indeed, we have seen that in the West as well. So we can rightfully say that the EU cannot impose democracy on Turkey. But we also know that democracy will be totally lost by cutting ties with the EU. It is the proof that the Turkish ruling party's fight with the EU is actually a fight against Western values themselves.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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